Police Chief: "We Cannot Break the Law to Enforce the Law"

Chief Michael Berkow
Chief Michael Berkow
Mayor Otis Johnson
Mayor Otis Johnson

The Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department held a news conference shortly after 2pm today to discuss the felony murder arrest of Officer Antonio Taharka.

Officer Taharka is in the Chatham County jail after police say he fatally shot a suspect, 41-year-old Anthony Smashum. See: SCMPD Officer Charged with Felony Murder in Shooting.

"I find myself reporting on a tragedy," said Chief Michael Berkow. "A member of the community is dead and a member of the police community has been charged with a crime, so there are no winners here."

Chief Berkow described the circumstances of the crime and showed reporters a map of the events.

According to Chief Berkow, Smashum has an extensive criminal history and was wanted on a probation violation warrant. After an anonymous call was received in regards to Smashum's location, officers were given a description of Smashum and saw him in the area of Waters Avenue and 39th Street.

"They approach him, he starts to move on down the street, there is a brief foot chase," Chief Berkow explained. He said there was "a physical encounter between one of the officers and  the suspect. During this struggle, the suspect loses his shirt and he loses his shoes runs further down the street."

Chief Berkow explained that as Smashum ran through a yard onto 37th Street, Officer Taharka, who had given the command to stop, fired once at Smashum. After the first shot, Smashum climbed over a fence and a second shot was fired. Smashum collapsed and was taken to Memorial Health University Medical Hospital, where he later died.

"During the investigation last night, we became extremely concerned based on the totality of the situation," said Chief Berkow. "The investigation continued until late in the evening at which point in time we reached the conclusion that in fact our officer had committed a crime."

He added they decided to charge Taharka with murder after the investigation of the incident saying, "The conclusion was reached reluctantly."

Taharka does have a history of using deadly force. In 2003, he fired two shots during a traffic stop. No one was injured. That incident was deemed to fall within police department policy.

Mayor Otis Johnson of Savannah was also on hand, making the point that this shooting is a tragedy for two families and also for the police department, which he referred to as a family.

The mayor asked the media to report the facts and avoid any sensationalism. "Much of the response of this community will depend on the media," said the mayor. "You can be responsible or you can be irresponsible in the way you treat this. My appeal to you is to be responsible in the handling of this situation."

Chief Berkow took questions from reporters following the mayor's talk. He ended the news conference with a clear message to the police department and the community: "We also have to send the message, we cannot break the law to enforce the law."

According to the police report, Taharka told investigators to he thought Smashum was reaching for a gun.

Berkow told reporters the investigation determined Smashum was not armed, and did not pose a threat to officers.

The victim, Anthony Smashum, has a criminal history. He'd been convicted of several crimes since 1988, including aggravated battery and rape.

He had just gotten out of prison on probation in September. Officers were trying to serve a warrant on Smashum for a probation violation when he was killed.